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March 26, 2016

Mercy's opposite: not justice but vengeance -
Terrorism and the power of fear -
Worldwide religion gender gap

In this edition:
1. Terrorism and fear.
2. Interreligious Holy Thursday.
3. Re-understanding "mercy."
4. Mercy, marriage and family.
5. The way of mercy.
6. Current quotes to ponder:
a) On judgmentalism.
b) Gender gap in religion.
c) What ecumenism now implies.
7. Where is the cross found today?

1. Terrorism in Brussels and the Issue of Fear

"This act is of such a level that it surpasses any religious question; it is only intended to spread terror, and this is why we must avoid being turned against Islam by it," Belgian Archbishop Josef De Kesel of Mechelen-Brussels said after March 22 morning rush-hour attacks by terrorists killed at least 31 people and injured more than 200 in Brussels. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks.

"Yes, Islam is there, and Muslims form part of our city. But they could do nothing about what's happened and should not be made victims a second time," the archbishop commented.

He said, "We must stay faithful to our message of peace and go on promoting a discourse which appeals for acceptance, brotherhood and coexistence." An attack of this kind, he added, "shows how anyone can be affected and the great danger that fear will appear everywhere."

The temptation to react to the attacks "by turning against migrants and refugees," was cited by Archbishop De Kesel. He hoped people would recognize that radicalized groups "are an extremely small minority."

Bishop Borys Budziak of the Ukrainian Diocese of Paris, which encompasses Belgium, viewed the Brussels attacks as an assault on Europe's openness to others. By assaulting a Europe that is hospitable and open, terrorists hope to "push the continent into throes of fear," he said.

The reason, he explained, is that "fear is a great manipulator, a wicked tool of control." Furthermore, Bishop Budziak said, "Brussels is the nerve center for a united Europe, whose countries witnessed the horrors of World War II and decided to eliminate war between neighbors." In this way they hoped "to rid themselves of fear of the other, to open hearts and demilitarize borders."

The bishop called this openness "a great grace and gift of Europe to the world."

2. Pope's Interreligious Holy Thursday

Men and women refugees of different religions -- Islam, Hindu and Christian -- had their feet washed by Pope Francis when he celebrated the Mass of Holy Thursday March 24 at the Center for Asylum Seekers about 15 miles north of Rome in Castelnuovo di Porto. Vatican Radio said the center provides temporary lodging and services to some 900 asylum seekers from 25 different countries.

"Gestures speak louder than pictures and words," Pope Francis remarked to a crowd of refugees during the Mass. Scripture, he said, tells of Jesus - "he, who was the 'head man'" - washing others' feet, washing the feet "even of the least."

The pope commented, "All of us together, Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Copts, Evangelical brothers and sisters -- children of the same God -- we want to live in peace." At the same time, he lamented the terrorist bombings in Brussels, Belgium, observing how, just days earlier, a gesture of another kind represented "an act of war . . . by people who do not want to live in peace."

He invited refugees at the Holy Thursday Mass, "at this time when I do the same act of Jesus washing the feet of 12 of you," to "make a gesture of brotherhood" and to say, "We are different, we are different, we have different cultures and religions, but we are brothers, and we want to live in peace."

Each person, the pope added, "has a story, each of you has a story you carry with you." It may be a story of "many crosses, many sorrows," but also a story of "an open heart that wants brotherhood." He said, "Let each, in his religious language, pray the Lord that this brotherhood will be contagious in the world."

3. Re-understanding Mercy

"We need to demythologize vengeance!" During this year's Good Friday liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa issued that call, urging a renewed understanding of what "mercy" means for Christians.

Father Cantalamessa holds the title "preacher of the papal household." He related his comments to the terrorist violence experienced four days earlier in Brussels, Belgium, as well as to the realities of married life and to a long history among Christians of misunderstanding what mercy means.

Vengeance "has become a pervasive, mythic theme that infects everything and everybody, starting with children," Father Cantalamessa observed. He said that "a large number of the stories we see on the screen and in video games are stories of revenge, passed off at times as the victory of a good hero."

In fact, he said, "half, if not more, of the suffering in the world (apart from natural disasters and illnesses) comes from the desire for revenge, whether in personal relationships or between states and nations."

But he suggested that while "in Christianity the mercy of God never has been disregarded," mercy's task too often was misunderstood. Its task was "only to moderate the necessary rigors of justice." In other words, mercy "was the exception, not the rule."

So the current "Year of Mercy is a golden opportunity to restore the true image of the biblical God who not only 'has' mercy but 'is' mercy."

What is mercy's opposite? Not justice, according to Father Cantalamessa. Rather, mercy's opposite is vengeance.

"In forgiving sinners God is renouncing not justice but vengeance; he does not desire the death of a sinner but wants the sinner to convert and live," he said. "On the cross Jesus did not ask his Father for vengeance."

In calling attention to "the hate and brutality of the terrorist attacks" in Brussels, Father Cantalamessa proposed that they can "help us to understand the divine power of Christ's last words, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'"

The priest said, "No matter how far the hate of human beings can go, the love of God always has been, and will be, greater." He added that "in these current circumstances Paul's exhortation is addressed to us: 'Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good' (Rom 12:21)."

4. Mercy, Marriage and the Family

"There is only one thing that can truly save the world: mercy!" That means "the mercy of God for human beings" is needed, as is "the mercy of human beings for each other," Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, said in his Good Friday homily in St. Peter's Basilica.

"In particular," he explained, mercy "can save the most precious and fragile thing in the world at this time, marriage and the family."

Father Cantalamessa believes that "something similar happens in marriage to what happened in God's relationship with humanity that the Bible in fact describes with the image of a wedding." He explained:

"In the very beginning . . . there was love, not mercy. Mercy comes in only after humanity's sin. So too in marriage: In the beginning there is not mercy but love." He said, "People do not get married because of mercy but because of love."

However, "after years or even months of life together, the limitations of each spouse emerge, and problems with health, finance and the children arise. A routine sets in that quenches all joy."

What is able to "save a marriage from going downhill without any hope of coming back up again is mercy, understood in the biblical sense, that is, not just reciprocal forgiveness but spouses acting with 'compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness and patience' (Col 3:12)," said Father Cantalamessa.

"Mercy," he observed, "adds 'agape' to 'eros,' it adds the love that gives of oneself and has compassion to the love of need and desire."

If God "takes pity on human beings (see Ps 102:13)," the papal preacher continued, "shouldn't a husband and wife, then, take pity on each other?" Furthermore, speaking as a religious-order member, he posed this question to those living in community: "Shouldn't we take pity on one another instead of judging one another?"

5. Pope Describes "Way of Mercy" for Priests

The Lord does not want "one drop of mercy" to be "held back," Pope Francis told priests during the Chrism Mass in St. Peter's Basilica March 24. Priests, he said, "have the rewarding and consoling task of incarnating mercy, as Jesus did."

The pope encouraged priests to inculturate mercy "so that each person can embrace it and experience it personally." Priests can "help all people truly understand and practice mercy with creativity, in ways that respect their local cultures and families," he said.

Cautioning priests not to allow a "digital, virtual worldliness" that opens up with "a simple click" to trap them and thus stand in the way of the practice of mercy, Pope Francis said:

"We are oppressed, not by threats and pressures, like so many poor people, but by the allure of a thousand commercial advertisements which we cannot shrug off to walk ahead, freely, along paths that lead us to love of our brothers and sisters, . . . to the sheep who wait for the voice of their shepherds."

The reception of mercy calls for "effusive gratitude," the pope said. For mercy "restores everything; it restores dignity to each person." He suggested that priests ask themselves whether, "after going to confession," they rejoice. Or, do they "move on immediately to the next thing, as we would after going to the doctor when we hear that the test results are not so bad."

The pope also proposed that each priest ask himself whether, when giving alms, he allows time for "the person who receives them to express gratitude." He proposed this as a question to ask: "Do I celebrate the smile and the blessings that the poor offer or do I continue on in haste with my own affairs after tossing in a coin?"

The ways of mercy are witnessed in the actions of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel, the pope observed. The Good Samaritan "was moved, he drew near to the wounded man, he bandaged his wounds, took him to the inn, stayed there that evening and promised to return and cover any further cost."

That, said Pope Francis, "is the way of mercy." It "gathers together small gestures," it is not "demeaning," and "it grows with each helpful sign and act of love."

God's mercy, he stated, "is infinite and indescribable," and "we express the power of this mystery as an ever-greater mercy, a mercy in motion, a mercy that each day seeks to make progress, taking small steps forward and advancing in that wasteland where indifference and violence have predominated."

6. Current Quotes to Ponder

Judgmentalism: "We all like what Pope Francis says and we like him even more when he says things we like. But Pope Francis also says things which challenge us and which challenge us to change our hearts. I was very struck by one thing he said at the conclusion of the synod last October. He spoke of 'closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the church's teachings in order to judge others, sometimes with superiority and superficiality.' Strong words. . . . As priests we must preach the message of Jesus Christ in its integrity, but never our own judgmentalism." (From the homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, for a March 24 Chrism Mass.)

The Gender Gap in Religion: "Women are generally more religious than men, particularly among Christians. . . . In the United States, for example, women are more likely than men to say religion is 'very important' in their lives (60 percent vs. 47 percent), according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. . . . Among Christians in many countries, women report higher rates of weekly church attendance than men. But among Muslims and Orthodox Jews, men are more likely than women to say they regularly attend services at a mosque or synagogue. Higher levels of weekly attendance among Muslim and Jewish men are due in large part to religious norms that prioritize men's participation in worship services. . . . The difference between women and men in self-reported rates of daily prayer is the biggest average gender gap found in this study. Across the 84 countries for which data are available, the average share of women who say they pray daily is eight percentage points higher than the average share of men. . . . There is virtually no difference between the shares of Muslim women and Muslim men who say religion is 'very important' to them in the 40 countries with data on this topic. When it comes to weekly attendance at religious services, however, the pattern is very different. Muslim men are more likely than Muslim women to regularly attend services by an average of 28 percentage points across the 39 countries where Muslim attendance data were collected." (From a Pew Research Center Study titled "The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World," released March 22.)

Ecumenism, Looking in the Same Direction: "It has been said, 'Love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.' Among Christians as well, loving one another means looking together in the same direction, in the direction of Christ. 'He is our peace' (Eph 2:14). If we will turn to Christ and go forward together toward him, we Christians will draw closer to each other until we become what he prayed for: to be 'one with him and with the Father' (see Jn 17:21). This can come about the same way that the spokes of a wheel fit together. The spokes begin at distant points of the circumference, but little by little as they get nearer the center, they get closer to each other until they form a single point." (Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, in his March 18 Lenten sermon at the Vatican.)

7. Good Friday Prayer: The Cross in Today's World

On Good Friday evening, Pope Francis presided at the Stations of the Cross in Rome's ancient Coliseum. The prayer he presented at the service's conclusion identified many places and ways in which the cross of Christ is found in the world today. Here is the prayer in its entirety:

"O Cross of Christ, symbol of divine love and of human injustice, icon of the supreme sacrifice for love and of boundless selfishness even unto madness, instrument of death and the way of resurrection, sign of obedience and emblem of betrayal, the gallows of persecution and the banner of victory.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you raised up in our sisters and brothers killed, burned alive, throats slit and decapitated by barbarous blades amid cowardly silence.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the faces of children, women and people worn out and fearful, who flee from war and violence and who often only find death and many Pilates who wash their hands.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in those filled with knowledge and not with the spirit, scholars of death and not of life, who instead of teaching mercy and life threaten with punishment and death, and who condemn the just.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in unfaithful ministers who, instead of stripping themselves of their own vain ambitions, divest even the innocent of their dignity.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the hardened hearts of those who easily judge others, with hearts ready to condemn even to the point of stoning, without ever recognizing their own sins and faults.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in expressions of fundamentalism and in terrorist acts committed by followers of some religions which profane the name of God and which use the holy name to justify their unprecedented violence.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in those who wish to remove you from public places and exclude you from public life, in the name of a pagan laicism or even of the equality you yourself taught us.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the powerful and in arms dealers who feed the cauldron of war with the innocent blood of our brothers and sisters, and give their children blood-soaked bread to eat.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in traitors who, for 30 pieces of silver, would consign anyone to death.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in thieves and corrupt officials who, instead of safeguarding the common good and morals, sell themselves in the despicable marketplace of immorality.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the foolish who build warehouses to store up treasures that perish, leaving Lazarus to die of hunger at their doorsteps.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the destroyers of our 'common home,' who by their selfishness ruin the future of coming generations.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the elderly who have been abandoned by their families, in the disabled and in children starving and cast off by our egotistical and hypocritical society.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, which have become insatiable cemeteries, reflections of our indifferent and anesthetized conscience.

"O Cross of Christ, image of love without end and way of the Resurrection, today too we see you in noble and upright persons who do good without seeking praise or admiration from others.

"O Cross of Christ, we also see you in ministers who are faithful and humble, who illuminate the darkness of our lives like candles that burn freely in order to brighten the lives of the least among us.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the faces of consecrated women and men -- good Samaritans -- who have left everything to bind up, in evangelical silence, the wounds of poverty and injustice.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the merciful who have found in mercy the greatest expression of justice and faith.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in simple men and women who live their faith joyfully day in and day out, in filial observance of your commandments.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the contrite, who in the depths of the misery of their sins are able to cry out: 'Lord, remember me in your kingdom!'

"O Cross of Christ, we also see you in the blessed and the saints who know how to cross the dark night of faith without ever losing trust in you and without claiming to understand your mysterious silence.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in families that live their vocation of married life in fidelity and fruitfulness.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in volunteers who generously assist those in need and the downtrodden.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in those persecuted for their faith who, amid their suffering, continue to offer an authentic witness to Jesus and the Gospel.

"O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in those who dream, those with the heart of a child who work to make the world a better place, ever more human and just.

"In you, Holy Cross, we see God who loves even to the end, and we see the hatred of those who want to dominate, that hatred which blinds the minds and hearts of those who prefer darkness to light.

"O Cross of Christ, Arc of Noah that saved humanity from the flood of sin, save us from evil and from the Evil One. O Throne of David and seal of the divine and eternal covenant, awaken us from the seduction of vanity! O cry of love, inspire in us a desire for God, for goodness and for light.

"O Cross of Christ, teach us that the rising of the sun is more powerful than the darkness of night. O Cross of Christ, teach us that the apparent victory of evil vanishes before the empty tomb and before the certainty of the Resurrection and the love of God, which nothing can defeat, obscure or weaken. Amen!"